They spoke the same language, honored the same ancient heroes, participated in common festivals, and prayed to the same gods.
Like most other ancient people, the Greeks were polytheistic, believing in more than one deity. According to their myths, or traditional stories that explain the ways of nature or the gods, the gods lived on Mount Olympus in northern Greece. In Greek myths, the most powerful Olympian was Zeus (zoos), who presided over the affairs of gods and humans. His children included Ares (EHR eez), god of war, and Aphrodite (af ruh DY tee), goddess of love. His daughter Athena (uh THEE nuh), goddess of wisdom, gave her name to Athens.
Greeks honored their gods with temples and festivals, which included processions, sacrifices, feasts, plays, choral singing, and athletic competitions. Greeks consulted oracles, who were priests or priestesses through whom the gods were thought to speak. However, some Greek thinkers came to believe that the universe was regulated not by the gods but by natural laws.
All Greeks shared a common heritage through their myths and legends. The stories were told and retold in different forms. Early on, Homer's epic poems, the Iliad and Odyssey, captured the tales of great heroes like Achilles and the gods whose jealousies and clashes affected the Trojan War. Later, Greek playwrights and artists created works portraying legendary heroes, gods, and goddesses.
As Greek power faded, the rising new power, Rome, adopted many Greek gods as their own and adapted the Greek myths for their own uses. As you will read, the legacies of both Greek and Roman cultures helped shape Western civilization.
A unifying force among the Greek states was the celebration of the Olympic games. Every four years in the sacred valley of Olympia, the Greeks held athletic contests to honor Zeus, their chief god. The competitive spirit of the games mirrored the rivalries that kept the dozens of small Greek city-states in a state of near-constant war. The games reflected the value Greeks placed on physical fitness. From their earliest days, Greek city-states wanted citizens to build strong bodies needed to fight in their frequent wars.
As the time for the games drew near, the Greeks called a truce, or temporary suspension of hostilities, so that athletes and spectators could reach Olympia safely. At first, the games were a one-day festival with just one event, a short foot race. Later the games expanded into a five-day festival with sports such as running, jumping, shot put, discus throwing, javelin, boxing, and chariot races. The games were open only to free born men and boys. Married women were forbidden even to watch the games although unmarried women could attend.
At this Tholos Temple in Delphi, Greeks offered sacrifices to Athena, guardian of the famous oracle, before asking their questions. This tholos, or circular structure, was built about 400 B.C.
The Olympic games lasted for more than 11 centuries, long after the Greek city-states were conquered by Rome. In A.D. 393, however, the games were abolished. By then, Roman emperors had become Christian, and the ancient games were seen as a pagan, or non-Christian religious tradition that had no place in the empire.
As trade expanded and colonies multiplied, the Greeks came in contact with people who spoke different languages and had different customs. Greeks felt superior to non-Greeks and called them barbaroi, people who did not speak Greek. The English word barbarian comes from this Greek root.
These “barbarians” included people such as the Phoenicians and Egyptians, from whom the Greeks borrowed important ideas and inventions. This sense of uniqueness and superiority would help the Greeks face a threat from the mightiest power in the Mediterranean world—the Persian empire.